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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Just Muddying the Waters

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Was President Vladimir Putin's unexpected shuffle of his Cabinet on Thursday somehow connected with his shocking speech at a security conference in Munich on Feb. 10? It seems likely.

It is difficult to follow the thinking of a president who seems to value secrecy above all else when making decisions. But a lot can be gleaned from clues coming largely from the siloviki bloc of Putin's inner circle. His Munich speech was also full of power jargon, staking out opposition to the United States and the West in general.

It is worth noting that the recent staffing changes coincided with talk among the ruling lobby that First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, considered one of the two most likely successors to Putin as president, has had some trouble living up to the role: He doesn't look good on television, is a poor speaker and seems too "bureaucratic;" and the national projects have yet to generate significant public attention. Inasmuch as the current regime considers image to be important, all of these factors constitute drawbacks for Medvedev.

On this front, Sergei Ivanov looks better. On one hand, his former role as defense minister is associated with power and plays to the voters' fetish for all things military, including innovative weapons and high technology. The hazing scandals that occurred on his watch at the Defense Ministry, on the other hand, have spoiled his image somewhat in recent years.

Anatoly Serdyukov, who replaces Ivanov as defense minister, has come to prominence largely through the efforts of the Kremlin deputy chief of staff and unofficial leader of the siloviki, Igor Sechin. The appointment of Serdyukov, who started working in a Leningrad furniture store, is an obvious slap in the face for the army, where his lack of military experience is unlikely to make him welcome, a problem Ivanov also faced. Serdyukov also played a key role in formulating the government's case against Yukos while working in the Federal Tax Service. It now remains to be seen what will happen to charges against former deputy finance minister and Federation Council member Andrei Vavilov on embezzlement charges related to MiG-29 fighter-jet sales to India. It is a complicated story. The investigations against former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky began after he publicly accused high-ranking members of Putin's administration of corrupt business dealings. This was at least partly in response to Vavilov's sale of his oil company, Severny Neft, to Rosneft, at which Sechin is chairman of the board.

Viktor Ivanov, another member of the siloviki bloc who has at times clashed with Sechin, also gained a higher profile recently, when he was named head of the federal anti-corruption commission. This post may prove very important in any jockeying leading up to the presidential vote.

With his appointment as deputy prime minister for foreign trade, Sergei Naryshkin also becomes a bigger player. With his political base located in the St. Petersburg security services, closer connections with government circles could make him a dark horse for the president's seat. He could well become a third "candidate" for the succession, with some citing his relative obscurity as an advantage. It certainly didn't hurt Putin in 2000.

So Thursday's announcements could lead to the formation or solidification of different power centers within the government in the lead up to the presidential vote. Still, other "mini-centers" of power could crystallize outside the government proper. It is too early to rule out figures like Federal Security Service Chairman Nikolai Patrushev or Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov. Ustinov's close ties to Sechin remain a factor here.

And among those with Kremlin connections, the head of state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, Sergei Chemezov, is also considered by some to be a potentially strong player. And Federal Drug Control Service head Victor Cherkesov, also close to Putin, could be another waiting to ambush the current front-runners. The classic dark horse in this race could be Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin. And the "liberal" Dmitry Kozak, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, remains an exotic, and perhaps unexpected, addition to the list of possibilities.

The whole point running through the names above was to help demonstrate whether Putin's recent appointments have clarified anything in the pre-election power struggles? The simple answer: Not a bit.

Medvedev and Ivanov might look like the two options, but there is still ample evidence that Putin's support could just as easily go to someone else.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil magazine.